Stephan Shakespeare is Chairman of the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age.
Today at a gathering of the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age the Conservatives are launching their 'Tech Manifesto'. It contains a bold new commitment: a 'Right to Government Data'.
This is truly game-changing, responding to the huge opportunities offered by technology and mashable data. It's more than an opportunity, it's an imperative, as technology will be driving the development of business, democracy and culture. A government that fails to respond to the changes happening through the online/mobile-apped behaviour of its population will be failing its economy and its society. Only radical openness will make the most of this golden moment.
I won't rehearse the arguments again because I've already gone over them on here, here and (with Janan Ganesh) here. So let me briefly focus on where we (enthusiasts of the Post-Bureaucratic Age) need to press for more.
Firstly, it's not quite a "Freedom of Data Act" (as we called for at the Feb22 conference launching the Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age) but "Right to Government Data". What's in a name? Maybe not much, and just represents caution. I’m assured they want to get on with this as quickly as possible, and not have to wait for legislation, which will inevitably take a while. But we must eventually have the principle enshrined in legislation, not just tweaks to regulation and top-down directives. Would we have got the expenses data if there hadn’t been an Act?
And in the announcement made today, I’m worried about this detail: the Conservatives say people will have the right to request and receive government data sets. But the onus should be placed on government to make these available automatically. One of the weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act is that people have to request, and in that process hangs the tale: it allows for obfuscation and obstruction. The right should be actively, automatically pursued by government, we should not be supplicants for data that we paid for, that we supplied, that is about and for us. The principle to which I'd like to see a commitment is: "The data belongs to the citizens, any withholding not democratically sanctioned by citizens is theft".
That principle would also address my second niggle: the document from the Conservatives talks of setting free "a wide range of government data sets" but not of all. How far does the 'right' extend? The question demands careful consideration around contradictions between the demands of openness and personal privacy, openness and security, and it will take a while to work through that, so I accept a cautious approach today. But what is the principle behind it? Is it accepted that citizens own all the data and the decisions are democratic rather than administrative? In other words, who will decide what must be released, will it be for the public to decide the limits, or will it be left for government administrators to engineer them?
This new policy from the Conservatives is an exciting, important new instalment of the post-bureaucratic age which clearly provides the 'hard edge' people have been looking for, something that has direct and profound economic value, as well as social and democratic value. What we now need to see is all the parties trying to trump each other with ever bolder commitments to ever-extending openness, until we get what we need: a true Freedom of Data Act.